Back to the Future

Internal FBI Memorandum

October 30, 1947

Miami Office

[name deleted], Miami, Florida, alleged that General Motors Corp. influenced decision of members of the City Council of St. Petersburg, Florida by gifts of Cadillac automobiles to abandon electric railways in favor of buses … (illegible)… the outgoing City Council hurriedly passes a resolution changing to bus transportation … the transition undertaken without regard to financial condition of the city and in spite of the fact streetcars provided adequate facilities and were financially remunerative.

“Wait a minute, this is a great opportunity. We’ve got 90 percent of the market out there that we can somehow turn into automobile users. If we can eliminate the rail alternatives, we will create a new market for our cars. And if we don’t, then General Motors’ sales are just going to remain level”.

Alfred P. Sloan, President, General Motors, 1922 (attributed)

You wanna see some 14k hokum corporate masters employed to hoodwink the benumbed masses into abandoning a transportation system as good as the world had seen? Check out archival footage of “Futurama” the 1939 General Motors New York World’s Fair exhibit. l960 was s’pose to be some sort of petrochemical, Tom Swiftian Nirvana: undersea hotels, mono-pylon suspension bridges, moderne skyscrapers served by subterranean parkways carved through the very earth, below the grade level sidewalks. Roads, roads, roads to the corners of the world. Instead, we have something looking more and more like, I dunno, a version the Dominican Republic with machine guns and 500 porn channels.

The raison d’etre of this piece is a detail of the Hillsborough project, a brick median under which lies buried a long-disused transportation option, our local section of a “splendid” national electric railway system: Raleigh’s streetcars, formerly headquartered at the 1910 Raleigh Electric Company Powerhouse on West Street. As a kid I watched (and smelled) City Coach’s sulfur-stinkin’ GM’s humping over some of the old track leading from the now-demolished, cavernous barn structure. The streetcars were long gone but Raleigh’s parsimonious tendencies saved much of the system under a protective layer of asphalt.

streetcar

A turn of the century Raleigh streetcar. Photo from the NC Division of Archives and History.

You’ve heard allusions to Edwin J. Quinby and US Attorney Bradford Snell even if you’ve never heard their names.

But first, it’s true that mass transit has always had money problems beginning with wild over-optimistic capitalization in the “horse”power days. By the Great Depression its ratings were moribund, the misery exacerbated by ’20’s defections to the automobile as well as the 1935 Public Utility Holding Company Act that forced utilities to divest their streetcar companies to which they had been supplying subsidized power.

And it is also true Alfred Sloan of General Motors brilliantly exploited this as a business opportunity, banding with Firestone, Standard Oil and others to compete with electric rail via motorbuses. GM’s National City Lines snapped up, scrapped and converted electric interurbans and streetcars to buses in well over 100 markets … followed by a great statistical herd of former transportation customers who en-masse rejected balky, malodorous bus-based transit for private automobiles. It’s all about creating demand, baby.

Quinby, former Navy Commander and rail devotee conducted at his own expense an intricate, financial investigation, compiled and published the results and sent a 33-page memo to big city mayors. By the forties, the FBI and Justice had become interested. House hearings had GM fined $5,000 whole dollars, not for wrecking electric rail, there were no laws against that, but for monopolizing the infant bus biz.

Snell’s career followed the scuttling of transit and associated decline of US urban life. His “vehemently argued” (described by transportation expert David Jones) 1974 report, “American Ground Transport,” is worth a flip for the finger waggling, red faces and shouting it induces. Business decision? “Conspiracy”? Who cares. Semantics mostly serve to obscure. So does pavement.

One golden autumn morning I pedaled into the Oberlin road job-site as slabs of old road were pulled aside amid clouds of diesel. I ran the story with a worker. “Gimme that shovel,” I joshed.

“You’re right on time,” he laughed. He stabbed and scraped away ’til that shriek of steel on steel  — yup — ties, rails, the whole deal – the Hillsborough street line. Flush with a skootch of optimism, I called Will Mullet, the manager of New Orlean’s streetcar system,  my gracious, entertaining host of a tour of the barn and shops last year, the Big O among a handful of US cities who resisted the motorization juggernaut. I told him what I had seen.

IMGA0068

Workers on Hillsborough Street uncover long-forgotten streetcar tracks.

“New Orleans tore the tracks up. We had to relay.” I heard audible excitement behind a curtain of professional caution.

“If the roadbed’s there, that’s the largest part of the job.”

Hey, I’m not so goo goo to hold out for a restoration of the system, but let’s git us some of that Federal dough and plant a seedling on Fayetteville or Glenwood, where a forlorn shelter stands still at Wade. Raleigh’d be well served preparing to rebuild an urban rail system like the ones commonplace in every other major nation and increasingly in the US, now in 35 cities across the land. Portland, Oregon has attracted 10,000 new housing units and $3.5 billion in investments within 2 blocks of the streetcar alignment. Heck, Charlotte is getting ready to pull it off.

trolley-shelter

The old trolley shelter on Glenwood Avenue.

Time for Raleigh to step up, admit to having being schnookered and shake the trees with the aid of the end to the car’s automatic, unchallenged free ride. Ok. It’s a lot to ask of a city apparently welded to their cars, but doggone it, you have to dream. I’m just lighting a fuse. A system that spares riders irreplaceable hours stuck in traffic amid annual per-annum carnage of 50,000 will look very different when $4 a gallon plus or the equivalent returns.

Civilized nations recognize the downside costs and factor them into the expense of auto operation; Yewessians and Raleighstas are conditioned to overlook the human and environmental toll wrought by our seven league boots — bought off in essence via fuel discounted by federal tax subsidies and other unfactored externalities that would were they negated inflate fuel by 5 to 15 dollars. “Free market,” my ass. You’re paying for the monster and don’t even know it. My own mass transit initiative would include local fees to begin to address the fumes, oil dribbles, copper from brakes poisoning Pigeon House branch and the ubiquitous wreckage and heaps of collision debris. Live along a future transit corridor and insist on driving a lot?  Pay for it.

Sure, urban rail’s upfront costs are high. The savings come later via reduced operating expenses and fuel. Buses are generally good for 15 years or so. New Orleans RTA has kept their simple, robust original 1923 Perley A. Thomas cars in service for a nearly a hundred years and built in-house two dozen brand-new replicas that were destroyed by Katrina and subsequently restored. But there’s this bit of perfect local balance. The source for the original Streetcar Named Desire is still in High Point, North Carolina, the Thomas Bus division of Daimler. With 400 streetcars on their tally sheet following the collapse of the streetcar biz the Perley A.Thomas Car Works salvaged itself in 1936 with a line of bus bodies. It is time for the pendulum to swing the other way.

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2 Comments

Filed under Public transit

2 responses to “Back to the Future

  1. Quinby was my mentor, and I’ve never forgotten all he showed me. Glad to see you keeping his work before living eyes!

  2. glad your writing columns again!

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